RPG Tax: Mars Hates Homework!

This is an RPG tax entry, where I read and comment on RPG products I purchase.

What is it?

Mars Hates Homework is a brochure-sized “quick role-playing game for 2 to 6 players.” It’s by David Kizzia of Monkeyfun Studios.

How did it get my attention?

I was at a con and saw it in a fellow player’s bag during an unrelated game, and I found their booth when exploring the dealer stalls.

Why did I actually buy it?

It sounded like a fun one-shot with a strong hook, and more likely to get to the table than some of the other games I saw there. Also I felt bad about chatting with the booth runner for so long and it fit my budget.

What are my first impressions?

The player-facing parts are written in a suitably hyperbolic style with plenty of exclamation marks. It evoked Invader Zim, one of the major inspirations. I laughed at the Martian name generation method: remove the vowels from your human name, then add punctuation randomly. They even used it for the credits!

The system is inspired by Lasers and Feelings, with the axis being School! (superior alien intellect) vs Cool! (social ranking). There’s a third resource, Fool!, which represents your ability to conceal your alien nature. Each session takes place over the course of one school day, ending with the players giving an Invasion Progress Report to their commanders. Failure at the day’s mission is not an option, so players are encouraged to lie creatively to make the events seem like a success, especially since Invasion Command knows humans even less than the PCs do!

The GM section includes details on structuring the day’s class schedule, tables for generating scenarios, how to play various adults, and other advice. The scenario tables amusingly contrast the mundane with the alien. Since each table has 6 entries, I could see getting repeats if you play a lot, but for a one-shot there should be enough material.

Overall, it looks like a fun game, especially with players who like to ham it up and are fans of Invader Zim or Third Rock From the Sun. If your GM improvisation skills need some help, the structure of Mars Hates Homework! should make it easier to GM than Lasers and Feelings. And that structure fits perfectly with the source material!

RPG Tax: Emily Care Boss’ Romance Trilogy part 1: Breaking the Ice

What is it?

Emily Care Boss’ Romance Trilogy is a collection of updated and revised editions of three of her games, Breaking the Ice, Shooting the Moon, and Under My Skin. It also includes three “Companion Games,” which are based on those three but have significant changes. For the purposes of paying my RPG Tax, I’m treating this as a bundle product and reviewing the games separately.

Breaking the Ice is the first game in the trilogy. It’s a game for two players to play through a couple’s first three dates, determining whether or not they stay together.

How did it get my attention?

Breaking the Ice and Shooting the Moon were on my radar from Forge discussions way back. I was intrigued by games that departed so far from typical RPG fare, and could be played with only two people.

Why did I actually buy it?

I missed the original release announcement for the Romance Trilogy, but saw a later announcement when it was on some kind of special sale, I think for Valentine’s. I had Breaking the Ice from way back and not really gotten to play it, but the inclusion of Shooting the Moon and the less-romantic Companion Games made me decide to get it.

What are my first impressions?

The book takes full advantage of being a second edition. It includes common ground rules for playing all three of the games, since relationships can be or bring up touchy subjects. In addition to the main rules, each game has a Strategy and Tips section that explains nuances of the rules and roles, and a Hacks and Mods section with variants.

Character creation starts with the players discussing ways they are different from each other, and choosing one axis of difference for their characters to switch. For example, if the two players are from different countries, each could play a character from the other player’s country. The switch pushes both players out of their comfort zones, while encouraging them to look to each other for guidance and approval. Which is a little bit like going on a date!

The game takes place over three Dates, each consisting of four to six Turns, alternating between players. During each turn, the active player narrates first things that go well and then things that go poorly to build up various dice pools. There’s a menu of possible narration types for each pool that help set the tone of the game, e.g. take positive action or use words that call on either character’s Traits to earn Bonus Dice. The menus provide clear guidance for what kinds of things to narrate. The book calls them out as an entry point for modding the game.

The Other Worlds section of the Hacks and Mods contains alternate settings and setups for Breaking the Ice. Some are minor variants, like Adventures Long Ago and Far Away, which describes how to set the dates against an action/adventure story in a setting other than the modern day. The variant I found most fascinating was With the Woods, about a human who leaves civilization and takes refuge in the wilderness. One player plays the human, the other plays the natural feature (like a mountain) the human takes refuge in. The Other Worlds showcase how small changes can greatly affect the kinds of stories the game produces, and how the game’s structure can be adapted to tell stories that look very different than the default setting of modern romantic comedy.

As a designer, the Strategy and Mods sections are gold. They contain good advice from many plays of the game, and break down how and why the game works the way it does. I’m looking forward to reading more of the games in this collection.

RPG Tax: HexKit v2.0 and The Black Spot tileset

What is it?

HexKit is a tile-based hex mapping application designed to work with the Hex Kit Fantasyland tileset. It comes with one set of black-and-white tiles, with more (including Fantasyland) available for purchase. The Black Spot (itch.io, DTRPG) is a treasure-map-themed tileset for HexKit.

How did it get my attention?

I saw the original Hex Kit Fantasyland tileset posted on G+ and reddit, and thought the tiles were beautiful. Later, the artist launched a Kickstarter to create an app for working with the tiles, and develop more tilesets.

Why did I actually buy it?

I was GMing Ryuutama and potentially going to GM a hexcrawl of some kind, so the tiles and hex software looked useful. The Kickstarter also coincided with a sale on the Fantasyland tileset, which bumped me over the fence.

What are my first impressions?

The tiles are gorgeous. One of the selling features is how easy it is to lay down tiles with subtle variations. The software groups tiles into categories such as “forest tiles.” Each category holds variants with the same background but slightly different features, e.g. the forest tiles have a mottled green background and different numbers and placements of trees. You can select a category to paint with, which fills hexes with random tiles from that category. It’s effortless to make forests or grasslands that have more visual interest than the same tile repeated.

It makes me wish I did get to run that hexcrawl campaign.

What are my second and/or post-play impressions?

The Black Spot tileset is fiddlier to use because it has more tiles where the orientation matters. This was true of the river and coast tiles from the Fantasyland kit, but the Black Spot has both coast and beach tiles, two path types, rivers, and map travel lines. For the water bordering tiles, it also matters how many of the borders are land and how many water, but they’re all in the same category. Even a simple map looks pretty cool though:

Prepping Scores for Blades in the Dark

I’ve co-GMing a campaign of Blades in the Dark, and one thing I struggle with is prep. I know it gives you tools to improvise scores, but my improvised scores tend to be cakewalks as I struggle to come up with suitable obstacles on the fly. I’ve also had several sessions where events meant most of my prep went unused. But for the last session, I tried something new with prep, and it went swimmingly.

First off, it helped that the crew decided before the session what score to pursue. That meant I could focus on a single score instead of preparing two or three scores in the hopes the crew picked one of them. We ran the score selection between sessions as part of an email chain with a short interlude by voice chat, but it could also be done Ryuutama-style as a session closer. The score was to steal an artifact called the Tangle of Bones from the Church of Ecstasy, with a warning that a rival crew was after the same artifact.

The prep method I settled on is inspired by John Rogers’ Crime World supplement for Fate, and The Covetous Poet’s Location Crafter. The high-level summary is to divide the score into zones, then prepare possible obstacles for each zone.

For heists, Crime World describes three key concepts. The Score is your target, whatever valuable you’re trying to steal. The Box is what directly protects the target, and the House is the building or area surrounding the Box.

Start by detailing the target. Why does the crew want it? Who is the current owner and why do they want it? If anyone else wants it, why? Decide on the target, at least at a high level, before going to the next step. For the Tangle of Bones, I generated a random prompt for its power, which was “Create Illness.” Since the crew’s client was a demon, the rival crew was a cult worshiping a demon, and the Church of Ecstasy researches demons and immortality, I decided that a demon could use the artifact to spread a plague that caused infected people to fall under its influence.

Next, think about the Box. What protects the target? What prevents people from accessing the target? How are intruders detected? What prevents people from just walking off with the target? What are some troubles or weaknesses of the Box? Decide the high level concept for the Box, and write down several ideas for the other questions. My high concept for the Box was a secret lab under a Church of Ecstasy.

Then detail the House. Divide it into three zones:

  1. The public areas. For my Score, the public parts of the Church where regular services are held. I decided on Whitecrown so they weren’t breaking into the Church’s main stronghold, and because it’s next to Doskvol Academy, where some of the crew has history.
  2. The secured areas between the public areas and the Box. The private areas of the church where only priests are allowed.
  3. The threshold to the Box. The secret labs under the church.

Make a table with four columns, one for each of the zones and one for the Box. In each column, write out possible obstacles and complications for the zone. Since I was prepping a score with rivals, I merged zones 2 and 3 into one column and added a fourth one for the rivals. Optional: sort the obstacles from easiest or most likely to least likely.

If your group likes playing with maps–mine does–sketch some rough maps for each zone. I picked an unlabeled building from the Whitecrown map. Then I looked up a few real church plans for ideas, and roughed out the zones.*

In play, whenever it seems like the crew should face an obstacle or someone rolls a complication, look up the list for the zone they’re in, pick one, and cross it off. If you sorted the lists, you can roll a d6 and use that obstacle, skipping any that are crossed off. If time is running short or the session is winding down, stop pulling obstacles from the list and deal with what’s already established.

For this score, part of the background situation prep was finding a reason for the rivals and crew to break in at the same time. Since services at the main cathedral involve dissolving spirits, I decided there would be an exclusive spirit destruction service/party at the Whitecrown location, held in the private areas of the Church. That would shake up regular security patrols and mean strangers wandering in the private areas, making it a golden opportunity for both crews.

This is the final table I came up with, marked with the obstacles I wound up using. The crew came in by a different route than the spirit destruction party, so most of those went unused. They were also most interested in the labs area, so I used more obstacles from that area than others. Overall, the score flowed smoothly without the awkward pauses where I rack my brain for a suitable obstacle. The players were engaged, and felt they could visualize what was going on better than any previous score I’d run.

Whitecrown Church Public Areas Church Private and Secured Areas Secret Lab / Vault Rivals
  • Need invitations for exclusive spirit destruction event
  • Guard checking guest list
  • (Spider) personal rival is there, will recognize him
  • (Whisper) Rival Whisper is there, recognizes him
  • Spirit destruction event requires  interaction from group and professions of faith
  • Rival Spider notices the crew and starts calling attention to them at the spirit destruction party, e.g. volunteer them for participation
  • *Door to labs area is hidden in secret passage, need to know sequence of brick/book presses to get in
  • Need to find which lab has artifact
  • Need to find location of vault with more immediately sellable  stuff
  • Researcher going to nearby lab who’s familiar with everyone that’s supposed to be working here
  • Artifact container is bulky and obvious, if any guards see it they’ll want to know what’s up
  • *Lab is guarded by a hull that wants proof that you’re an authorized user of the lab to open the door (Pick 2+: smell, sound, sight, knowledge)
  • Hull remembers everyone who comes through (+Heat unless addressed)
  • *Two keys needed to open valuables safe ether clean chamber
  • *Keys are on opposite sides and need to turn at same time
  • Research notes are ciphered
  • *Artifact is contagious in the ghost field and needs special container for carrying
  • *Artifact is in an ether clean chamber, need to remove it into container without letting ghost field in (Like those biohazard / chemical chambers with the glove sleeves)
  • Entire lab is an ether clean room, airlock style so you need to suit up (and suits are bulky / hard to move in)
  • Vault has combination lock
  • *Vault is set up like safety deposit boxes, need to crack individually to get contents
  • Rival Whisper alerts the rest of cult that the crew is here
  • Rivals find crew Whisper due to pendant
  • *A guard knocked out by rival Cutter or rival Lurk wakes up as PC passes
  • Rivals found the artifact first and are making their escape
  • Rivals corner whoever has the artifact and try to get it:
  • Cutter – by force
  • Spider – by fast-talking / distracting
  • Lurk – by distracting  / stealth
  • Whisper – summon ghost?

 

RPG Tax

I’ve decided to copy Ray Otus‘s resolution to pay an “RPG tax” on any new games bought: immediately read them and post commentary. The posts have this structure:

  1. What is it?
  2. How did it get my attention?
  3. Why did I actually buy it?
  4. What are my first impressions?
  5. What are my second and/or post-play impressions? (Optional)

When I have time, I’ll also go through my backlog of games to read and post about those.

Edit: More clarifications on the resolution:

  1. If it was a Kickstarter, I must post when I receive the final version from Kickstarter. Writing posts for drafts is optional.
  2. If it was a bundle, I need to write posts for at least half the products in the bundle. If there are multiple versions of a product, like an adventure module with versions for 13th Age and Pathfinder, all versions count as one product.

RPG Tax: Of the Woods: Lonely Games of Imagination

Edit: Link to post describing the RPG Tax: http://games.nightstaff.net/2018/04/01/rpg-tax/ . In short, it’s a resolution to immediately read and comment on new RPG products that I buy or otherwise acquire.

What is it?

Of the Woods: Lonely Games of Imagination is a collection of lonely games curated by Brie Sheldon. “Lonely games” consist of some scene-setting text, then a series of questions to develop the situation. By answering the questions, you create a story.

How did it get my attention?

I follow Brie Sheldon on G+, so I saw the initial announcement when it was released. More recently, there was a thread about small games where someone brought it up.

Why did I actually buy it?

The recent thread reminded me that I meant to check it out, it was only $5 with proceeds going to The Trevor Project, and I’m trying to support more niche creators. I also keep thinking about doing more solo roleplaying, and this looked like a nice bite-sized way to get started.

What are my first impressions?

Haunting. Evocative. The prose snippets and questions sketch a setting and situation with only a handful of words. Some games resonated with me more than others. Hollow by Kimberly Lam is my current favorite. The games are ordered so they flow together. The last two, I Believe by Chris Bennett and Home Again by Adam McConnaughey, each add an extra mechanic.

What are my second and/or post-play impressions?

The questions about relationships and the first-person viewpoint made the game feel unexpectedly personal. I’m not sure about sharing the story that mentions a mother with my real mother, for example. I think if I paused after reading the initial text and before answering the questions to form an idea of my character, I would have a stronger alibi in place and less emotional bleed-through. But the power of the games comes from that personal place.

Also, I want to write one now.

Ryuutama Travel Encounters

Diversions (d12):

    1. A wishing well with a dragon statue on top
    2. A viewing point with a breathtaking vista of the scenery
    3. Some hot springs
    4. An abandoned, overgrown cottage
    5. A well-maintained shrine to a local deity or spirit
    6. An abandoned shrine to a forgotten deity
    7. A slow, shallow part of the nearby river or stream where you can bathe or wash things
    8. A good fishing spot
    9. A local farm or ranch with food to sell
    10. A dragon statue with a walking stick and bowls holding a few other travel items. You can take some or leave items for other travelers.
    11. Broken pillars that belonged to an ancient building
    12. An abandoned orchard. If you search it, you can find some ripe fruit (food) and some overripe fruit (alcohol).

Travelers En Route (d12):

    1. A merchant who specializes in fine foods. You can buy delicious food from them to eat today, as if you were in town.
    2. A weather forecaster. You can get a forecast from them.
    3. A courier who can take messages
    4. An itinerant priest(ess). You can ask for a blessing or advice. They appreciate donations.
    5. A storyteller who will trade a tale for a tale.
    6. A mapper. They’ll share part of their map with you and will be happy to see yours.
    7. They tell you about a business opportunity (e.g. shortage or surplus) in a nearby town
    8. Someone else on Journey. They offer to trade souvenirs with you (trade Specialty Goods of the same size for each other)
    9. A rancher driving a herd of pack or riding animals to sell. You can buy one from them for 10% cheaper than normal.
    10. An artisan. If they have the same type of item, they will trade you a new one for a broken one plus the repair cost. They also sell repair kits.
    11. They’re carrying a grandfather clock to the next town. They’re worried about rain and will buy an umbrella if you have one.
    12. They’re transporting a lot of stuffed animals in a variety of sizes. They can sell you one now, or you can commission one to pick up the next time you meet.

Stopped Travelers:

    1. They’re taking a break (see Travelers En Route)
    2. The straps on their sandals or backpack broke and they’re trying to fix them. Maybe you can help?
    3. They twisted an ankle and need help getting to the next town
    4. They’re lost and trying to figure out how to get to [different town]
    5. Their pack animal got stuck in some mud
    6. A performer or troupe of performers, rehearsing
    7. An artist painting the scenery
    8. A farmer whose wagon wheel broke or came off
    9. A hunter checking their traps
    10. A healer tending to another traveller
    11. A noble in a carriage taking a break. If you can entertain them, they’ll let you ride with them to the next town.
    12. A dowser looking for water to build a well

Blades in the Dark Clock and Faction Sheets

When I run Blades in the Dark, I like to have clocks for everything. So I made a sheet with a lot of blank clocks, with markings to help you make 6-, 8-, and 12-clocks.

Clocks sheet v1

Then a few weeks ago, someone on G+ requested a faction worksheet with clocks, so I figured I’d make one of those too.

Faction sheet v1

Glass Bead Game Randomizer

A while back, Rob Donoghue posted about a game you should play to become better at GMing. Created by HipBone games, it’s inspired by the Glass Bead Game that Hermann Hesse wrote about in his book, Magister Ludi.

In the basic game, two players take turn placing ideas on the board. Whenever they place an idea, they need to state connections between the idea they just placed, and any other ideas connected to that space. Whoever comes up with the most total connections wins.

Played solo, it’s a neat exercise in divergent thinking. But I always hit a block when deciding what to fill each space with. To turn it into a pure divergent thinking exercise, I created a randomizer that fills each space with an icon from Game Icons. I also added the ability to set a seed in the URL, so if you find an interesting layout, you can share it around. Every time you randomize, it updates the URL.

Try the Glass Bead Randomizer here

The Companion’s Tale Playtest Review

Last year I had the good fortune to play The Companion’s Tale by Laura Simpson of Sweet Potato Press, with Laura herself acting as facilitator.

The Companion’s Tale is a map-making, storytelling game for 2-4 players that makes heavy use of cards as prompts. It was Kickstarted in March last year. It’s inspired by Avery Alder’s The Quiet Year, but instead of a post-apocalyptic community it’s about a land in upheaval where a hero arises to save it. Nobody actually plays the hero, though. Instead, you play brief vignettes as the hero’s companions, and contribute to the world and history in a variety of ways.

The game starts with some world-building prompts. Each player is given  a question, answers it, and draws a representation of that answer on the map. From there, it moves into three acts, each made of several rounds. An act starts with the Historian phase, where every player contributes a fact. Then come the rounds. Each round, players are assigned one of these roles/duties:

  • The Cartographer, who draws representations of people’s contributions on the map
  • The Companion, who narrates a vignette as one of the Hero’s Companions
  • The Witness, who describes an event that happened elsewhere from the Hero
  • The Lorekeeper, who describes a cultural development.

The roles rotate every round, and the act ends when everyone has had a chance at each role. To close out the act, there’s a Biographer phase. In it, every player contributes some rumors or gossip about other players’ Companions. In every phase, contributions are considered potentially unreliable, and may be contradicted by later contributions.

The Companion’s Tale makes heavy use of cards for prompts. There are cards for Themes, Archetypes, and Faces. At the start of each round, you draw a Theme card for the Historian phase. Each card has a one-word theme, like “Punishment,” and one or two prompts, like “Once the people were punished by the elite.” The prompts are simple but evocative, and subtly steer the game to depict a realm in upheaval.

At the start of the Act, the players draw four Archetype cards, such as “Rival,” “Protege,” “Oracle,” or “Lover,” and lay them out. On the Companion’s turn, the player creates a Companion by choosing one of those Archetypes. They draw two Theme cards and choose one to inform their story, then finally draw a Face card with a portrait of their Companion. The three cards together provide a rich prompt to invent the Companion’s story. Since the game has you draw the Face card after choosing the Archetype, it’s harder to fall back on stereotypes, which leads to more nuanced Companions. When I played, after the Companion player chose the Child archetype, they drew a Face that was an old, scholarly-looking man. If that was the Hero’s Child, then how old must the Hero be? They decided instead that was the Child in his old age, telling his story decades after the fact and having become one of the eminent historians of the period.

I play(test)ed the Diaspora variant, which is designed to allow larger groups to play. You start play as a single group and build the core of a shared map and culture, with elements spanning the map. Then the divide happens: you split into two groups and the map into two pieces, with each group taking one half of the map. Afterwards, you play through the game mostly as normal, but after each act, you pass the Lorekeepers’ cultural contributions to each other. At the end, you get back together, reassemble your halves of the map, and then each player gets to vote on whether the divided lands should reunite.

We started with a core value of Generosity, exemplified by a large lake in the center of the map. Another prompt said that something threatened the kingdom, but people were divided about the nature of the threat. The player who got the prompt drew a volcano on one side of the map and a dragon on the other. When the split happened, I was in the group that got the side of the map with the volcano, a difference that shaped our two cultures. The volcano erupted early in the first act, destroying one of the two capitals. Our game dealt with the resulting economic and social upheaval and was fairly grounded, with no overt magical or supernatural elements. We struggled with feeding people in the wake of the natural disaster, with the main “villain” being a noble who violated our culture’s central tenet of generosity to hoard resources . The group with the dragon side of the map struggled with appeasing and taming the dragon, blood sacrifices, and giant bees.

We discovered these differences every act as we exchanged Lore sheets. Our group felt like our situation was grim, with the crops wiped out by the volcano and the hoarding noble setting up a kind of feudal system. As counterpoint, our Lorekeepers wrote about how the ruin of the capital decentralized the arts, and how the children had started to play a selfish game called “Keep.” Then we got the other group’s Lore sheet, where they had written about appeasing the dragon with pies made from blood mixed with honey. We were horrified and morbidly curious about what was going on in the other half of the realm. The other group found our Lore sheets comforting and a little quaint.

There was some downtime after each act, as whichever group finished first waited for the other group to see their Lore sheet. The breaks gave time to decompress, as the game can use a lot of creative energy.

After the third act, the groups rejoined and spent some time discussing what had happened in each half of the land. Then we held the vote. Almost everyone voted to reunite. One person on our side was concerned about whether the other side had stuck to our core value of generosity. Another on their side was concerned about how we would deal with blood sacrifice.

Playing Companion’s Tale was a wonderful experience. The prompts worked well to give a jumping-off point without overly specifying. The different focuses of the Acts gently shaped the game into a satisfying arc. By the time we got to our third Act, we had both a Traitor and a Spy among the Companions. We all tacitly agreed that the Hero would most likely meet a bad end, and it was just a question of who did the deed. It was decided when the Spy’s player drew the theme “Betrayal” in Act 3. They narrated how the Spy had come to believe in the Hero’s mission, and so gave them the final grace: they would die a martyr, and never have to compromise their ideals.

I loved the Lorekeeper role. I think a lot of worldbuilding forgets about the smaller cultural developments, and it was refreshing to make up children’s games and new slang.

In summary, if you enjoy collaborative storytelling or mapmaking, or like the idea of inventing a history through a variety of lenses and unreliable narrators, check out Laura Simpson’s The Companion’s Tale. As of February 24, 2018, it’s still available for preorder on Backerkit.